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News / Clark County News

‘Each drum is a heartbeat’: Cowlitz Indian Tribe’s drum circle uses music to heal, honor ancestors, make connections

Group is open to anyone, members say

By Mia Ryder-Marks, Columbian staff reporter
Published: May 16, 2024, 6:05am
5 Photos
Tim Richardet, right, and Dawna Richardet play drums and sing at the Cowlitz Indian Tribe&rsquo;s drum practice. The group uses the tradition to heal from trauma, honor ancestors and connect with one another, both socially and spiritually.
Tim Richardet, right, and Dawna Richardet play drums and sing at the Cowlitz Indian Tribe’s drum practice. The group uses the tradition to heal from trauma, honor ancestors and connect with one another, both socially and spiritually. (Taylor Balkom/The Columbian) Photo Gallery

TOLEDO — On a Thursday in April, the late afternoon light drifted through an open door, clashing with the rhythmic sounds of drums and singing.

The group of about 10 drummers includes younger members and elders from the Cowlitz Indian Tribe.

Drum circles are a significant part of Indigenous culture and celebrated across the world. The Cowlitz Indian Tribe group uses the tradition to heal, honor ancestors and connect with one another, both socially and spiritually.

Jeramiah Wallace said drumming saved his life.

Wallace, 42, began drinking alcohol when he was about 9 years old. His life “spiraled out of control,” he said, and he graduated to more serious drugs.

“I started using substances to fill a massive hole inside me. But I was never able to fill it no matter how many substances I used. It just numbed my pain and made the pain go away a little bit,” Wallace said.

But Wallace wanted to choose a new path. He wanted a family.

“Then, when I was in prison, I realized I’ll never have a family if I keep going this way,” Wallace said. “It’ll just be a revolving door.”

When serving time in prison, Wallace met someone from the Cowlitz Indian Tribe who provided him with resources, such as food, clothing, a cellphone and help finding employment, after he served his sentence.

“They helped me form my identity and become rooted in my community. I found confidence and self-esteem and a place to feel safe. I just started to change as a person slowly,” Wallace said.

Wallace has been clean and sober for about 14 years.

Wallace wanted to pay back the tribe in some way. He attended one of the drum group practices where one of his cousins was a leader. Wallace’s cousin helped him step into a leadership position of his own.

Wallace said he learned a lot of new skills and how to work with people.

“I just gave it my all and sang as loud as I could and as proud as I could,” Wallace said. “I stayed involved because I wanted to change my life, and this was a way I could and feed my spirit with positive medicine.”

Research from the Centers for American Indian & Alaska Native Health point to the positive impacts drumming has on Native American communities. The research looked at healing from addiction and generational trauma caused by colonization and forced cultural assimilation.

“The way we break cycles of addiction and trauma is by participating in culture and feeding our spirits and giving back to our community in a good way,” Wallace said.

The group performs at celebrations of life, funerals, community gatherings and grand openings. Each week, the group gathers to practice songs Wallace composed or those passed down through generations.

Wallace described the drum songs as prayers to The Creator.

“We honor the people who came before us with the songs,” he said.

As the drumming group practiced, Willy Koch, known as Uncle Willy, used a hand drum passed down from his elders. He’s been drumming with the Cowlitz group since the early 2000s. Before that, he drummed with a group in Eastern Washington and with a larger drum. The first time he picked up a hand drum, his son told him: “It’s like you found your home.”

When Koch drums, his body is at peace.

“It’s spiritual. It’s uplifting. It makes me happy,” he said. “Each drum is a heartbeat. This is what our ancestors did. This is how we celebrated our spiritual truths for years, and it is very healing. It heals your heart. Then, when everybody starts singing, it unites us.”

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John O’Brien said the drum circle helps him feel closer to his culture. Although his family is Indigenous, when he asked to learn more about what it means to be Native, he never got a straight answer, he said.

“I went from somebody who didn’t know anything to now being the chair of the tribe’s cultural resource board and involved in other committees,” he said.

Now, he plans to pass on his knowledge to future generations.

The drum circle is open to anyone — whether Indigenous or not and regardless of tribal affiliation, Wallace said.

“I think there are a lot of people out there who are like me and would benefit from the group,” Wallace said. “Even if you just have small issues you want to work through, this is a different type of healing. It will change you.”

Community Funded Journalism logo

This story was made possible by Community Funded Journalism, a project from The Columbian and the Local Media Foundation. Top donors include the Ed and Dollie Lynch Fund, Patricia, David and Jacob Nierenberg, Connie and Lee Kearney, Steve and Jan Oliva, The Cowlitz Tribal Foundation and the Mason E. Nolan Charitable Fund. The Columbian controls all content. For more information, visit columbian.com/cfj.

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